An increasing number of people have started venting their frustration that Bhutan has too many unnecessary bans and restrictions.
Some contentious laws have been the plastic ban, the ban on selling meat on religious days and months, the ban on commercial billboards, and of late the tobacco ban and it’s imposturous clauses making all tobacco users potential criminals.
Some other touchy cases have been the government’s attempts to ban junk food, proposal of Tsirang Dzongkhag to implement a dress code in the country meaning coming up with a law to wear only the national dress, and the most recent is a checklist by the Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA) to moviemakers mandating actors to wear only the national dress and to have at least two traditional songs, among others. Though BICMA has announced the checklist is not official, the attempt of coming up with the checklist was enough to infuriate the people and moviemakers in particular.
All such laws have been taking a toll on the people and the current frustration is a sum of it all.
This takes us to a basic issue of defining and understanding the purpose and intent of having a good law in place. The purpose of having a law is unquestioned but the intent needs more discussion.
Normally, it is taken for granted that people have to respect the law but it should also be understood that the law can only be respected if the law also respects the people.
In this light, it is necessary to review and debate on the lawmaking process in the country. Today, the lines are a bit blurred. It needs to be streamlined and people have to be brought to the heart of the process. One of the biggest gifts of democracy has been the right endowed on the people to elect leaders of our choice. The only official prerogative of the elected leaders is to make laws. So, the elected leaders have to ensure that people are aware about all the laws tabled and their feedbacks help them shape their final stand.
An important missing link in the current system is the lack of transparency and consequently the lack of debate on issues before coming up with the laws. Today, the authorities come up with laws unilaterally.
Bad laws can have several repercussions.
For example, the Tobacco Act was passed in the parliament without much debate on the severe clauses in the Act. The only notable debate was whether tobacco should be banned in the country and thus it became a tricky affair. Most of the elected leaders who passed the Act did not even see the nuances of its impact.
It resulted in dividing the society. Today, there is a group of people asking for an amendment. It is the first time that a group of people have assumed the role of activists. Rather than looking into the issue, the government has chosen to isolate this group of people and have even branded them as a group of smokers and drug addicts.
This is not a healthy sign.
No matter how small a group it may be, an elected government just cannot afford to disregard or ignore it. We cannot ignore the fact that the Tobacco Act has tested the patience of a group of people. This could only evolve into something worse.
We should also look at the issue as the beginning of a new culture where people with similar thoughts have started to raise their voice in unison. Bhutan loves environmental activists. But will our system accommodate anti-tobacco-law activists, film activists etc?
Upon hearing about the checklist for moviemakers, a frustrated moviemaker commented “movie making is an art. Every movie is an inspiration and a dream for the script writer. Such a rule is an invasion into my aspiration and my dream. I cannot and will not accept it.”
The level of frustration is only growing with every bad legislation and we cannot ignore that it will have a tipping point. Once it crosses the line, we may not be able to contain it.
Moreover, the recent Kasho by His Majesty states clearly that all issues can and should be solved after consultations “in the spirit of brotherhood.” The aspiration of the throne is clear and it also means that Bhutan cannot afford to see strikes when there is a possibility to solve issues peacefully.
The biggest strength for Bhutan, His Majesty says, is the small society where we can create a platform for peaceful consultation. But it can only begin when the government starts acknowledging issues raised by the people. This government also has to learn that dismissal of an issue will only aggravate the situation.